Herbal Support for Pertussis (whooping cough)

        There is an outbreak of Pertussis going around in my son's school here in the Cowichan Valley. It is typical for pertussis outbreaks to occur during spring or early fall every 3- 5 years, so this didn't come as a surprise. 

       Even the word "outbreak" can trigger fear and nervousness for parents. Before we get upset and let our emotions get the better of us, let's take a closer look at Pertussis and see what we can actually do to minimize it's effect on our children, reduce the duration, boost our children's immune systems and help our kids stay resilient whether they contract Pertussis or not. I've always found knowledge empowering when making decisions for my family that maintain confidence in the face of potential illness.

       Pertussis is caused by a small, gram-negative bacteria called Bordetella Pertussis. It is generally contracted via close respiratory contact rather than airborne exposure. This bacteria produces a nasty toxin which is what causes the irritation that leads to the severe coughing. The typical coughing fit of a child suffering from Pertussis makes a distinct barking whoop at the end of the cough on the inhale. This is where the nickname "whooping cough" comes from. 

        Pertussis is generally a much longer illness than the common cold. It can take between two and three months for complete recovery. It has long been referred to as "the hundred-day illness" and the Chinese called it "the cough of enlightenment". It is thought that the infection rates of Pertussis are grossly under-reported as it can so closely mimic other common colds. Several of the children in our school whom have tested positive for whooping cough did not actually develop the tell-tale whoop associated with the illness.

        It is important to understand that while this disease is rarely fatal anymore, complications can occur though most often Pertussis is generally a self-limiting disease that may cause a lot of discomfort and inconvenience but does not commonly present any damage or complications to the well-nourished, healthy population. According to MD Aviva Jill Romm, it also conveys permanent immunity. The biggest risk category for complications and fatalities are for babies, especially those under 6 months.  I find it interesting to note that, according to MD Romm, widespread vaccination has not altered the intervals of outbreaks and even more fascinating is that before vaccination the most common occurrences of Pertussis were in children between the ages of 1-4 but since the introduction of the vaccine, the epidemiology has shifted to babies under one year now having the highest incidence. 
       It is not the goal of this post to get into the debate over whether to vaccinate or not vaccinate. The fact is, whichever choice you make does not eliminate the risk of your child contracting Pertussis and it should still be every parent's mission to make sure their child is as nourished as possible to build a strong and resilient immune system in order to prevent complications from any illness.

        If your child has been exposed to Pertussis, it will usually take between 9-20 days before any symptoms are noticed and those first symptoms will seem a lot like a common cold or upper respiratory infection. In the first two weeks of the illness you may notice your child starts to cough and may even develop a fever. In the second and third week severe coughing fits are most likely to occur and this is the most severe part of the illness and when you want to be most sure to watch out for potential complications. Finally you will notice the cough fits decline and severity start to wane and recovery will begin.

         As a parent, it is important to encourage your children to get plenty of rest and not to overexert themselves. Plenty of hydration is important. Try to encourage your children to drink lots of herbal teas, broth and water. Sometimes eating and drinking trigger coughing and children can start to refuse to eat or drink. If your younger children refuse to eat or drink, they can easily become dehydrated and undernourished as coughing requires a lot of energy. Seek medical attention if necessary.

        Make sure that your child(ren) receive plenty of vitamin C, and zinc. I try and include liver in my children's diets at least a few times a week as liver is an excellent source of zinc, vitamin A and vitamin D as well as virtually every other vitamin. I make pate or incorporate it into ground meats. I also give my kids fermented cod liver oil for extra omega 3, vitamin A & D. Helpful foods and herbs to boost the immune system are lemons, garlic, ginger, rose hips, and mushrooms (the food and medicinal kinds, though Chaga, Reishi & Shiitake are my favourite). 

      Here are some herbs used for Pertussis with a brief description for some of their virtues: 

Thyme: This Herb of Venus is a "notable strengthener of the lungs" as Culpepper puts it. He also says "neither is there scare a better remedy growing for that disease in children which they commonly call the Chin-cough". It helps the body bring up phlegm and is highly antibacterial making it a specific for Pertussis. 

Chamomile: Great for babies (or older children or adults acting like babies). It is helpful when the illness presents discomfort to the point of constant complaining. It helps when a fever accompanies sweating and is helpful to calm the nervous system and promote relaxation. 

Echinacea angustifolia: Primary indication is lymphatic stagnation with inflammation and immune depression. Especially helpful when the illness has been preceded by a strenuous or stressful circumstances or period of time resulting in exhaustion and depression of immune system.

Cleavers: When there is very swollen glands (especially in the neck and ears or ear pain). Often the mental state of someone who needs cleavers is one with an irritated nervous system. Helpful for removing stagnation in the lymphatic system.

Plantain: Draws out mucus. Used as a tea for phlegmy coughs or "coughs that come from heat" says Culpepper. 

Elderberry: Has an affinity for stagnation of blood and fluids and helps decongest heat, stirs up the blood, bringing it to the surface to remove heat and toxins. Helpful for very young children (infants) especially. It helps open up the lungs and bring up mucus. 

Red Clover: This herb has a strong affinity for the glands in the neck and under the ears and is a very helpful lymphatic agent for Pertussis. It helps thin bodily fluids where there is coagulation or congestion in the blood/lymph. 

Mullein: *please note the seeds are toxic. The leaves are used to make a strong tea or tincture. It is useful of the sick person has a sore diaphragm from the force and frequency of coughing. It is useful for harsh, racking coughs with a dry, irritated membrane and irritated cough reflex where there is a lack of secretion. 

Valerian Root: There is no finer herb for stress or nervous system disorders used for acute and chronic conditions. Very helpful to calm the child, help them sleep and ease the irritated nerves involved in the cough reflex. 

Lobelia: Caution when using this plant as it's results are completely unpredictable. Dose is usually one drop. It is a chief among the diffusive remedies and acts as both a stimulant and a relaxant. It has profound uses for nervous system as it seems to travel to the nerves as fast as possible. It is very useful for spasms which are extremely intense- even life threatening if in the throat or lungs; the kind where your muscles "torque" says herbalist Mathew Wood. Use this remedy warily and only under the guidance of an experienced herbalist in combination with other helpful remedies. 

Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum) [hard to come by] can be used for respiratory infections when there is a lot of stagnant mucus. 

Marshmallow: Soothing, helpful for sore throats or coughs and helps stimulate the immune system to clear up debris. It also helps soothe inflammation and it tastes yummy too!

Althea (marshmallow) growing in my garden. Both the leaves and the root contain mucilaginous substances that soothe irritation. 

Althea (marshmallow) growing in my garden. Both the leaves and the root contain mucilaginous substances that soothe irritation.